The French Laundry, Redux
|The French Laundry||Dominic Armato|
So we scored a return trip to The French Laundry, and since I've been asked at least 18 times already, the secret -- which isn't really very much of a secret -- is apparently to spring for exceptionally (read: absurdly) nice hotels and let the concierge do the work for you. In fact, when we nabbed our table, it was nearly a month after that particular date had opened for reservations. Now, I'm no stranger to rapid-fire dialing on multiple lines at precisely the right moment after three straight days of dry runs (that's how I got our reservation at Per Se a few years back, after all), but in this case, it was simply a matter of having access to the right person and asking nicely. Of course, the first time around we'd just had our wedding reception at the hotel and this visit was another property under the same ownership, so perhaps they've called in special favors as a means of an extended sort of thank you for your business and we'll never be so fortunate again. But you asked, that's the secret.
So I'm now in the position of writing about what is widely regarded as one of the greatest restaurants in the world for the second time in a four year span, and I'm a little unsure of how to approach it. I kind of covered the basics the first time around (and got a little hung up on a completely unnecessary comparison to Jean-Georges Vongerichten, but this was the earrrrrrrrly days of Skillet Doux, so be kind), so I've decided to pretend my name is James Pendleton III, do my best "What, hasn't everybody dined at The French Laundry multiple times?" and act like it's the most natural thing in the world next to summering in the Hamptons. Which is kind of tough to pull off when you're sneaking around the courtyard trying to peek over the hedges so you can watch the kitchen through the windows.
|Salmon Tartare||Dominic Armato|
It hasn't changed much since we last visited, neither in the front nor the back of the house, at least not to the casual observer. Though the kitchen now features a flatscreen TV with a live feed of Per Se's kitchen in New York, presumably so Keller can keep one eye focused on each coast at all times. The boss may have skipped town for a couple of weeks, but he can still see that you used a pair of tongs to flip that venison medallion rather than an offset spatula, except that you never would have considered using the tongs in the first place or you never would have even been asked in to interview, because Keller, seeing that your resume was done in Word's default font of Verdana, would have known that you're the kind of chef who takes the easy, conventional way out. Thomas Keller's just that obsessed with detail. Everybody knows that.
It's also why the night's tasting menu features no fewer than sixteen items in quotes, because god forbid we call something a bavarois if it isn't produced precisely as the dish was originally conceived. Don't misunderstand, I salute the dedication to pedantry, but there does come a point where you start to wonder if he's having you on. For full effect, I've preserved the items I chose exactly as they were listed on the menu, punctuation fully intact. The first few bites to hit the table -- unbilled -- were the same amuses we received the last time around, and I say this without the slightest hint of disappointment. Two perfect little gougères were followed by the famous salmon tartare, for which I finally -- after four years -- now have a photo. A perfect, simple little dollop of finely minced tartare sits atop a crisp tuille cone that's filled with creme fraiche. The source of the amusement isn't a wacky flavor profile, but an unusual amount of precision and a little bit of whimsy applied to something that would otherwise be entirely pedestrian. This would become a theme. Bread service was accompanied by some killer butter, and this was one of the rare instances where I went for unsalted -- the deep yellow dollop on the right -- over salted in a non-cooking context. It spread like a country club socialite... cultured and rich and kind of cheesy.
|Oysters and Pearls||Dominic Armato|
"Oysters and Pearls"
"Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar
Last time out we passed on the chef's tasting in favor of a smaller version that featured a few dishes that caught our eye. And even if it were still an option (they now offer only the nine-course chef's menu and a vegetarian tasting), we'd resolved ahead of time to go with his signature menu. What can I say? I'd dined at The French Laundry and had never tried Oysters and Pearls. It's easy to see why this has arguably become Keller's signature dish. Classic flavors, precise technique, creative twist, a bit of decadence and wit -- it's all there. What I didn't expect was the fact that the dish was served warm, a pair of oysters and a generous caviar quenelle bathed in a creamy "sabayon" (see, now I'm doing it) that's studded with tapioca pearls. Oysters and pearls. Get it? It's creamy and salty, a guilty sort of mouth-pleaser despite the precision involved in its production which I won't rehash in full here. But when you realize that the oysters have been trimmed down to perfect little circles and the trimmings used to flavor the sabayon before being strained out, and learn that this luscious, creamy not-quite-custard is actually a combination of three distinct elements -- a pudding, a sabayon and a sauce -- you immediately get a sense of what you're dealing with here.
|Foie Gras au Torchon||Dominic Armato|
Moulard Duck "Foie Gras au Torchon"
Celery Branch, Granny Smith Apple Relish, Marcona Almonds, Watercress and Banyuls Reduction
Playful twists aside, Keller is still a French chef at heart, and as lovely as I'm sure a salad of compressed cucumbers would have been, you know I wasn't going out the door without sampling the day's foie. Until the day when I'm VIP listed (ha!) and he sends out the whole roasted lobes, I'll have to make do with the torchon, which was surprising in its simplicity. Sort of. Like so many Keller dishes, complicated preparation plays simple here, and the buttery foie picks up just a little bit of everything from its companions -- a little sweetness from the apple, a little tartness from the banyuls reduction, a little saltiness from the celery and a little bitterness from the almonds. I particularly enjoyed what I believe was almond mousse, as though the nuts had been pulverized, creamed and passed through a tamis god knows how many times (Q: What do you call a French Laundry chef who strains his sauce a dozen times? A: Slacker). This was an exercise in restraint, though, the very simple, pure foie as the star with an unheralded supporting cast. And inch-thick toasted brioche.
|Sauteed Moi||Dominic Armato|
Sauteed Fillet of Pacific Moi
Hearts of Peach Palm, Red Radish, Medjool Date Chutney, Madras Curry and Coconut
I adore moi. I've only had it on a few occasions, but based on that limited sample I feel comfortable calling it one of my favorite fishes. It's rich and mild with a great texture and a skin that loves searing. A dish I had in Hawaii and still can't get out of my head, even five years later, was a moi with fennel confit and nicoise vinaigrette. So when it came to selecting the third course, the hamachi sashimi didn't stand a chance -- even if I was deathly curous to see how Keller fuses raw amberjack and broccoli(!). The presentation here kills me. Bury everything underneath and let that beautiful fish shine. I thought about getting a very low angle from the back for the purposes of demonstrating that, yes, there were other components present. Then I decided that would be violating the spirit of the presentation. Keller evoked the fish's heritage a bit here with the coconut, and I'd very much like to know not only how one produces a perfect brunoise on something so squishy as a date, but also how the heck one maintains that texture through the process of turning it into a chutney. No matter. Again, flawless as the accompaniments were, this was all about the fish, and the picture says it all, I think.
|Butter-Poached Lobster||Dominic Armato|
Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster
Green Garlic "en Feuille de Bric," Sacramento Delta Asparagus, Petite Lettuces and Black Truffle
Then the other extreme, with every little component carefully splayed out for maximum exposure. To the left of the asparagus, which made notable mention despite being simply a single thin slice of a third of a spear, is the aforementioned green garlic, one tender, braised (I think) shoot enclosed in a crisp, rolled shell. The butter-poached claw is exactly as you'd expect, cradling the inky black essence of truffle, but the dish, for me, was all about the components on the right. First, a lobster boudin that was absolutely dynamite. I've no idea what went into it, but it had just a little bit of funk and spice and I wish I'd had just a little bit more of it, which, as Keller has often stated, is precisely what he's shooting for. There was also a little relish that played like kind of like an upscale tartar sauce, creamy with a pickle flavor and chunky texture, and given Keller's penchant for working the humblest of elements into his incredibly refined dishes, it wouldn't surprise me if that was exactly what he intended.
|Dégustation of Pork||Dominic Armato|
"Dégustation" of Gloucester Old Spot Pork
with Winter Pole Bean "Cassoulet" and Whole-Grain Mustard
The next course was, again, a selection that made itself. Though I'm an unabashed fan of quail, if you've read anything about Keller, how do you not go with the dish where he crams in as many different pork preparations as he can? On the right, a crispy fried and succulent nugget of a cut I'm afraid I don't recall, taking me back to the pork palaces of Germany. In the middle, a tile of pork belly, not the almost liquid Asian variety, but with some body and chew, but not so much to distract from the all-important fat. Both were pure expressions of pork, barely touched by other flavors other than the beautiful, creamy beans beneath. But the boudin noir on the left absolutely floored me and was, I think, my favorite taste of the night. It brought the funk and that beautiful grainy texture, but did so in a refined and delicate way. And to understand how one can apply "refined and delicate" to blood sausage is to understand why I loved it so much.
|Calotte de Bœuf Grillée||Dominic Armato|
Snake River Farms "Calotte de Bœuf Grillée"
Nantes Carrot Purée, English Peas, Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Béarnaise "Pain Perdu" and Tarragon Jus
And then we hit the dish that was a total jaw-dropper. When I saw that our final savory course would be grilled beef, I was a little disappointed. I don't want to say I was looking for something exotic, precisely, but to see something so conventional was a bit of a letdown. The fact that it was billed along with peas and carrots and mushrooms didn't help. But I should have known better. It was amazing. The boudin noir may have been my favorite component, but this was my favorite dish. And I'd be lying if I didn't admit that half of the appeal was in my sitting there asking, "How? How does he make steak with peas and carrots the most delicious dish of the evening?" There's a tarragon jus, sure, and the bearnaise has been transmogrified into little pudding-like nuggets, but take them off the plate and it still might've been my favorite. Again, that stunning precision took something entirely pedestrian and made it something special. And the best part is that if you've followed Keller at all, you know that he isn't trying to be ironic. He isn't putting us on. He isn't chuckling to himself over the fact that he's getting people to pay $250 a head for a meal that features steak with peas and carrots as its headliner. The guy just knows that as overplayed and poorly done as it usually is, there's an elemental appeal to beef with peas and carrots, and why not elevate it as high as you possibly can and make a French Laundry dish out of it? You just have to laugh. And I did.
|Cheddar with Polenta Gnocchi||Dominic Armato|
"Clothbound Reserve Cheddar"
White Polenta Gnocchi, Popcorn Mousseline, Charred Scallions and "Piment d'Espelette"
One of my favorite features of our last meal at The French Laundry was the cheese course. And it was precisely because I've never been a big fan of the stodgy old chunks of cheese with some nuts and fruits, no matter how carefully they're prepared, that his practice of creating carefully composed cheese dishes appealed to me. So when you've just taken beef with peas and carrots to new heights, what cheese do you choose to feature? Cheddar, of course! And what a way to bring out cheddar's oft overlooked beauty. The tender little polenta dumplings mimiced the appearance of the craggy bites of cheddar, which had been warmed to the point where the outer edges were juuuuuuuust barely getting a little melty, while the inner core mostly maintained its normal room-temperature texture, but fell apart in a softer manner. And the warmth brought out the flavor as well, which was carefully and gently highlighted by the scallions and piment d'espelette. The mousseline rounded it out with a more luxurious texture, and you've got yourself one hell of a cheese dish. Beats a hunk of brie and slices of nut and fruit bread, if you ask me. Can this be a trend, please?
|Passion Fruit Sorbet||Dominic Armato|
Passion Fruit Sorbet, Pisco Granité, and Angostura Bitters
I still get the shivers a little bit every time I see pisco. Let's just say that while most of it was wonderful, my trip to Peru, digestively speaking, did not end well and leave it at that. But that's ancient history now, and I can once again approach Peru's greatest contribution to the international pantheon of cocktails with an open mind, and it's a good thing. The sorbet course was less notable only because of those that preceded it. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the cool and refreshing combination of lively flavors and textures herein, and it's only when you deconstruct it a bit that, again, you see the care that's going into it. It's sweet, it's sour, it's bitter, it's a little salty -- and the frozen marshmallow is a cute little treat.
|Savarin au Citron||Dominic Armato|
"Savarin au Citron"
Citrus "Vierge," Moulin des Pénitents Olive Oil and Straus Dairy "Crème Glacée"
Dessert was a choice between the light and the sticky and, predictably, I went for the former while my ladylove went for the latter (a peanut butter bavarois). It was a beautiful almost creamy-textured cake, laced with citrus and alcohol and strewn with pretty little flowery bits of indeterminate origin. It also furthered the entirely welcome trend (heck, for all I know Keller kicked off the trend) of olive oil in desserts. A simple frozen cream was all it needed on top. Anything more would have been overkill, I think. Of course, this is Keller we're talking about, so there were probably thirty-eight steps involved in the frozen cream's creation, but it played simply and that's what mattered. And it was here, with a heavy heart, that I realized we'd run out of courses.
|Crème Caramel||Dominic Armato|
Naturally, the end of the menu isn't precisely the end of the menu. The kitchen was kind enough to send assorted mignardises in our direction. This is the French Laundry's way of breaking up... letting you down easy by telling you that you really are a beautiful person who deserves a few extra plates of sweets. A baby crème caramel, delectable chocolates on a silver platter, some dynamite toasted macadamia nuts in some manner of candy shell (also available at Bouchon Bakery... get them), and a parting gift of shortbread that never passed my lips. My father is a big fan of shortbread and it was he and my mother who enabled this excursion by taking care of the little ones while we were away. A few pieces of shortbread seem like kind of a meager thank you for such a favor, even if the shortbread IS from The French Laundry. I tell myself that watching the little ones is its own reward. Yes, we are every parent, apparently.
What's to say that hasn't already been said? A spectacular meal. Everything you expect from Thomas Keller. And to me, it's about two things. The first, I hate to say, because this is a bloated, stinking, long-dead horse corpse we're beating here, but there's the finesse. How else do you make a ribeye cap with peas and carrots the highlight of the evening? By obsessively refining and refining and refining and refining until it's something special, that's how. The second, and one I think is less often discussed, is a kind of humility -- yes, humility -- that comes through on the plate. What struck me on this second pass at The French Laundry was that despite the absurd amount of detail that you know went into creating these dishes, they played very simply... almost deceptively so. When it hits your tongue, it's steak and carrots and peas. That's a classic combination. A real one. And why should a titan of even Keller's stature stand in the way of that? Achieving simplicity by complicated means. When all is said and done, the food is his boss, not the other way around.
I've said too much already. It was a wonderful evening. Our meal thusly completed, we stumbled out into the night, made our way through the courtyard and back to Calistoga and our waiting pillows where we promptly crashed, our sleep punctuated by creative, delicious and obsessively detailed dreams.
|Napa - Day I | Napa - Day II | The French Laundry | Napa - Day III | Napa - Day IV|
|The French Laundry|
|6640 Washington Street|
|Yountville, CA 94599|
|Mon - Thu||5:30 PM - 9:15 PM|
|Fri - Sun||11:00 AM - 1:00 PM||5:30 PM - 9:15 PM|